Veggie Balls from “The Meatball Shop Cookbook.”
Business partners Daniel Holzman and Michael Chernow literally are having a ball with their out-of-the-box restaurant concept.
In just two years, The Meatball Shop has turned into a phenomenon and shows signs of being the next big food thing out of New York City.
The seminal restaurant on the city’s Lower East Side opened in February 2010 with a single-minded focus. The style is mix-and-match — customers can choose from five “naked” meatballs and a smattering of sauces. Meatballs can go on bread, pasta or other sides of choice. And that’s about it. All are priced under $10.
“We did something that doesn’t happen that often, start a new genre of restaurants,” Holzman, the chef, says by phone from New York. The restaurant’s cookbook, “The Meatball Shop Cookbook” (Ballantine Books, $28), came out this past fall, and another meatball cookbook popped up at the same time.
So what’s the big deal
about meatballs? Plenty, it turns out.
At least nine other meatball concepts have been launched since the Meatball Shop, according to Holzman. Most are in major cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and London.
“We were definitely the first,” says Holzman, who admits he was less than convinced the meatballs-only idea would work. But common sense played devil’s advocate.
“When we’re eating out, we’re not necessarily looking for a fancy dinner, but we’re not looking to eat at McDonald’s every day. So what’s in between?”
He ticks them off: pizza, Chinese, Thai ... so why not meatballs?
“In the end, it wound up being something pretty special,” Holzman says.
Veteran author Rick Rodgers, who lives in New Jersey, took notice. The result is his latest cookbook, “I Love Meatballs,” (Andrews McMeel, $19.99).
“Everywhere I turned,
there were meatballs. When I saw a meatball slider on the tea time menu at the Four Seasons, there was no turning back.”
Meatball mania hasn’t yet come to Charleston, but Chris Orlando wouldn’t be at all surprised.
“Burgers are so overdone now, that it is another option,” says the chef-owner of Mondo’s Delite on James Island. “A lot of concepts now are single focus, like tacos, or just sliders. I think it’s a great idea.”
While Mondo’s has a broad menu of Italian-American fare, the house-made meatballs always have been its top-selling protein. Orlando makes them the same way his grandfather in Philadelphia did.
“We sell 100 pounds a week. For my scale of business, that’s a lot,” he says.
Beef meatballs will remain the classic, no doubt, but recipes in both Rodgers’ book and “The Meatball Shop Cookbook” offer a wider window to the world.
They include Mexican, Moroccan, Greek, Thai and Tandoori. Barbecue pork and Buffalo chicken. Even Reuben Balls from The Meatball Shop.
“People are looking to go beyond the standard meatball, because every country in the world has a meatball,” says Rodgers. “Now we’ll be making meatballs with chicken and turkey as often as with beef. Ground lamb makes the best meatballs.”
Meatballs’ appeal isn’t a head-scratcher. They’re hearty and flavorful and have a fun factor. They remind us of home cooking, parents or grandparents stirring pots on the stove.
For a cook, they’re also relatively inexpensive and can be produced in quantities quickly. Meatballs are easy to make ahead and freeze.
“The key word is cheap,” Rodgers says. “They’re always made out of ground meat. It’s only recently that you can buy expensive ground meat,” like grass-fed.
And they are more interesting and popular than Holzman ever imagined.
“I’ve learned that meatballs have a lot more legs than I anticipated. ... Who thought that everybody would like or want meatballs?”